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A passion for breakthroughs

By Rebekkah Marshall |

Last month, I had the rare honor of sitting down with about 40 students from Booker T. Washington High School’s engineering magnet school (Houston), who are all on the path toward careers in science and engineering. While the experience itself was inspirational, it also caused me to reflect — again — on what defines inspiring chemical engineering practice.

My encounter was at a student outreach event that was hosted by Honeywell Process Solutions (HPS; Phoenix, Ariz.; www.honeywell.com/ps) and held in conjunction with ChemInnovations Conference and Expo. Following his keynote address, a variety of hands-on activities and tours of the exhibit hall highlighting process equipment, instrumentation and other related service providers, Norm Gilsdorf, the president of HPS, gave the students an inspiring view of the exciting challenges and places where his chemical engineering career has taken him. As an engineer for UOP, LLC, Gilsdorf has literally seen the world and experienced extraordinary things.

By the end of the day, it was clear to me that prior to this event, none of these students could have answered in any practical sense “What does a chemical engineer do?” To be honest, I had been in the same boat, myself, until at least the end of my first year of college. My reasons for selecting a ChE education in the first place were, quite simply, based on my prowess in two subjects: chemistry and math. In fact, a recollection that is laughable to me now is that I naively entered my university’s ChE program — after one year in the architectural engineering program — in search of less ambiguity and more-definitive “right answers”.

I’ve since realized that a chemical engineer who pursues only right answers will quickly become unsatisfied and attain mediocre accomplishments at best. Truly stellar careers in our profession are studded by breakthroughs, as illustrated in the announcement of this magazine’s 2010 Personal Achievement Awards (see pp. 17–22).

While each and every breakthrough is unique by definition and can come in a variety of forms, one common denominator can be found in them all: a willingness to take risks and do things differently than they have been done before. That requires a creative mind, a characteristic that is not included in the average engineering stereotype.

And despite the instantaneous revelation that the word breakthrough implies, its achievement does not come to fruition overnight. It usually takes somewhere between seven and ten years to innovate, a period Andre Argenton, Global R&D strategy leader for the Dow Chemical Co. and a fellow keynote speaker, referred to as the valley of death. As ominous as it sounds, emerging from this pit does not mark the end of the challenge.

In the chemical process industries, breakthroughs of two kinds are required: the first is inventing the novel process or technology to be used, while the second is convincing the right people to adopt it. I know that many of you have found that the second of these breakthroughs is the hardest to achieve. This is true even if you’re only trying to implement a promising, new third-party technology that has been proven elsewhere. The reality is that the greater the potential gain, the greater the change that is required, and therefore, the greater the resistance that must be overcome.

So, while there is no general formula for achieving a breakthrough, I think that ChemInnovations’ final keynote speaker, John Hillman, an engineer and inventor who has an inspiring first-hand story of his own, said it best: Above all else, it takes passion. And that is something that stellar chemical engineers have in abundance.

Rebekkah Marshall

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